Down 38-5 with just a little under halfway to go in the first half of Kansas State’s Jan. 27 game against Baylor, ESPN’s Chris Spatola said it best.
“C’mon Kansas State, have a little pride, man.”
Up to that point in the season, the K-State’s men’s basketball team lost to NCAA Division II opponent Fort Hays State, lost to Baylor by more than 30 points in their first meeting and were on a six-game losing streak.
Oh yeah, and the final score for that second game against Baylor? 107-59, the largest margin of defeat in K-State men’s basketball history.
People called for head coach Bruce Weber to be fired, making fun of the Wildcat’s social media posts and simply giving up on K-State. It seemed like everything that could go wrong for the Wildcats this year, was going wrong.
But for the members of one of the youngest team’s in the country — featuring five freshmen and just four players that returned from the year before that saw a decent amount of action on the floor — they weren’t giving up.
“I love my teammates. Their hearts are in the right place. It’s new to a lot of them, and they’re figuring it out,” lone senior Mike McGuirl said following K-State’s 74-51 loss at KU on Feb. 2. “I’m with them every step of the way to try to help them figure it out. Whatever it takes.”
Slowly but surely, that’s exactly what this young team did. Going wire to wire with teams like No. 13 Texas Tech, No. 13 Texas and No. 23 Oklahoma State, but still not picking up any wins.
“We’re improving every time and doing everything we need to do, but we need to finish on the small mistakes we have,” freshman Davion Bradford said following the loss to OSU. “We’re still trying. It’s not like we’re trying to lose. We’re trying to win.”
Finally, after 13 straight losses, the streak came to an end on Feb. 20 at TCU with a 62-54 victory over the Horned Frogs — but the winning didn’t stop there.
The Wildcats managed to rattle off two more wins in the final three regular-season games — upending No. 7 Oklahoma on senior night before closing out the regular season by defeating Iowa State, holding both opponents under 60 points.
With that momentum following them into Kansas City for the Big 12 Championship, K-State dominated TCU in the opening round and came ever so close to upsetting No. 2 Baylor in the quarterfinals, closing their roller coaster of a 2020-21 campaign on a hopeful note.
But how hopeful should people be about this team moving forward? Especially after a season where the Wildcats finished with its worst winning percentage since World War II (.310)?
To be honest? The future looks quite bright for this young team — and the team thinks so as well.
“We’ve got that experience this year so therefore next year we can go in knowing what to expect, knowing the work that it takes and knowing what it takes to win,” freshman Nijel Pack said following Thursday’s loss. “I feel like we’ve got the talent, we’ve definitely got the coaching, we’ve definitely got the support to win the Big 12 Championship, we’ve just got to believe it and put the work in.”
Pack is going to be a big factor in that success. The freshman guard from Indianapolis, Indiana, came in and made a major impact on a team that was rebuilding from the ground up.
Even though Pack missed four games this season because of COVID-19 and a fifth because of an eye infection, the freshman still led the team in scoring, averaging 12.7 points per game, three-point percentage where he averaged a 40.5 percent clip and free throw percentage where he shot at a 79.4 percent clip. Pack also finished second on the team in total assists (91), average minutes (33.5 minutes) and third in total steals (28).
And still, he was snubbed from the Big 12 All-Freshman team.
Pack, along with the rest of the talented youth on the team like Davion Bradford and Selton Miguel, will continue to grow with the more experienced team members such as DaJuan Gordon and Mike McGuirl if he chooses to return.
The rest depends on the shape of the Big 12 Conference next season. Being in one of the best conferences in the nation this season didn’t help this young Wildcat team. Seven out of the 10 teams in the Big 12 were ranked at some point this season, and with the opportunity for seniors to return next year, the conference will still most likely be the toughest in the country.
So while the goal of a Big 12 title might seem lofty for next season, improvement on all phases of the game is bound to occur.
It’s important to look back on K-State basketball when the original big three — Barry Brown Jr., Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade — were all freshmen. At that time, K-State struggled to stay above .500. Over the next three years, the team improved each season before the Elite Eight run in 2018 and the Big 12 Championship in 2019.
So the word for now with this team is patience. The end of the 2020-21 season provided good building blocks for success that might just be around the corner for the K-State men’s basketball team.